Aces Wild, Erica S. Perl

41ZMzOF3saLThis is a title from PJ Our Way, the pilot program for kids aged 9-11, run by PJ Library. I was given this title at a conference and it sat on my desk for almost a year before I started reading it. I’m not quite sure why this happened… I think it was buried under some paperwork and neglected and it was only when I was doing my annual clean up that I noticed it and took the time to actually pay it attention.

There is so much to love about this book – even if you don’t read the first in the series – When Life Gives you O.J. – although, I expect that once you read Aces Wild, you’ll be hooked and will have to read the back-story!

Meet Ace – Ace, the Grandpa, and Ace, the dog. Meet Zelly, short for Zelda, the new girl in town, struggling to find her space in the world of teenage girls, to balance her Jewishness with her need to be accepted and to deal with her interesting family – specifically Grandpa Ace.

Grandpa Ace was the stand-out character for me in this book. He speaks mostly in capital letters, English interspersed with large smatterings of Yiddish.


He was a judge and his advice is filled with legal terminology and endless amounts of wit. He is filled with the kind of wit that only a Grandpa can have and he made me smile.

“Forget it,” I said. “Let’s go.”


“He doesn’t have shoes. He’s a dog.”

“I GOT NEWS FOR YOU, KID. EVERYBODY HAS SHOES.” Ace stood, hitched his pants up over his belly, and led the way outside.

He is also recently widowed and he regularly makes trips to the golf-course where he feels he can commune with Grandma, AKA Bubbles.

Of course, the bulk of the obvious humour in this book comes from the fact that both Grandpa and the dog have the same name, and both appear to be equally untrainable –

“Ace-the-dog or Ace-the-grandpa?” asked my dad in a way that made it clear he was only half kidding.


“He’s Ace,” I said. “I’m Zelly. I’m the one who’s doing the class. It’s my dog.”

“Okay, what’s your puppy’s name?”

“Ace,” I said quietly.

“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” said Mrs Wright….

I sighed. “Ace,” I said, louder.

Mrs Wright looked confused. ” I thought you said he was Ace?” she said, pointing her pen at Ace.

“He is. They both are,” I told her. “It’s a long story,” I added.

I won’t destroy the story by revealing more as part of the beauty of this book is, in fact, the story itself. What I will say is that as far as young adult fiction goes, this book hits the mark for me. I think it will have huge appeal for a wide range of young readers and I can’t wait to try it out on my kids!

John Boyne, The Boy At The Top of the Mountain

Boy2-150x229I am a huge John Boyne fan and not because he wrote ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ which I did read and enjoy. I’m a fan because of the diversity of his writing. I love that he can write in so many different genres, that his young adult fiction is as good as his adult fiction, and I love the depths of his vast imagination.

This book was no exception.

And I’m not even sure how to write about it. I found it incredibly confronting and realistic and immense in its implications. Boyne has crafted something really masterful here that is going to take me some time to digest. Through his tale about young Pierrot, Boyne navigates his way through the complicity of German nationals, through the destruction of innocence and the enduring power of true friendships. He presents such a terrifying depiction of Hitler and his world that I found myself wondering about the extent of his research.

I read this book having in mind that I wanted my children to read it, but in hindsight I’m not sure that they are equipped to deal with the moral depths to which it plunges and I’m not sure that I am equipped to answer their questions about the choices that Pierrot makes and the repercussions of those choices.

The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall

9498875What a wonderfully unusual and different book.

Meet Golden Richards. He has 4 wives, 28 children and is in the midst of a midlife crisis. Richards’ business is failing and he himself is falling apart due to the accidental death of one of his daughters and the stillbirth of a son. He is lost in the most profound sense of the word and the place he finds comfort simply heightens the irony of his situation.

I won’t reveal too much about the plot of Udall’s book because it will destroy the pleasure that is buried in its reading. What I will say is that this is one of the most delightfully peculiar books that I have ever found myself reading. Udall has crafted a wonderful and empathic insight into a polygamist lifestyle that in any other circumstances would probably have me frowning with moral disapproval. Instead, what I experienced in this reading is a tender appreciation of the trials and tribulations of this lifestyle and while I laughed out loud in many parts, what I was left with was the white tinge of a residual sadness that exposes Udall as a truly great writer.

Leah Kaminsky, The Waiting Room

9780857986221I had the enormous pleasure of listening to Joanne Fedler interview Leah Kaminsky at the recent Sydney Jewish Writers Festival held at Waverley Library, in Sydney.

I had never heard of Kaminsky before, but I am a huge Fedler fan. And when Joanne Fedler raved about Kaminsky’s book, I knew I had to read it. Before I provide my review, although me to give you some context: I am in the middle of reading Julie Orringer’s magnificent tome, The Invisible Bridge. I am drowning in this book and will no doubt review it when I am done. But, I am reading it electronically and when it comes to the Jewish Sabbath that means that I have to put it down which is frustrating because this is the one day that I have a substantial amount of reading time. I tried the local library, but they didn’t have an available copy so when it came time to read on Friday night, I was somewhat at a loss. I have a huge pile of TBR books, on top of which is Wolf Hall and I decided that perhaps it was time to finally dive into that monster of a book. I did and was thrilled by what I read in the first 6o pages but then my brain began to hurt because of the overdose of different characters and I couldn’t follow which Thomas was which so I decided that I needed something lighter. Sitting next to me was Kaminsky’s much shorter book. I didn’t hesitate. And I read it in one sitting, gulping down the prose as though my life depended on it.

There was just so much about this book that appealed to me. It’s hard to know where to begin. Ironically, what impressed me most was the acknowledgement section where I found a long list of some of my favourite writers who Kaminsky describes as inhabiting the “global village of people who have generously supported the development of The Waiting Room in so many ways over the years.” The list includes Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Fedler, J.M.Coetzee and Liz Kemp amongst many others. I am in awe of these layers of influence and Kaminsky’s book pays tribute to the notion that it takes a village to both raise a child and raise a novel … or a memoir … or whatever genre this book inhabits.

I think what made this book so delicious for me was the fact that as I read it, I had a keen sense of Kaminsky’s own voice describing the various experiences that led to the book’s writing – her relationship with her mother, the things she remembered growing up, her own experiences of being a mother, life in Israel. This made the book very real for me. The other thing which resonated for me, particularly at this point in history, is that this book so clearly describes the very vivid trauma of life in a state of crisis which is exactly what is unfolding for Israelis as I write this. The events of the last week have disturbed me intensely and the protagonist, Dina’s, experiences gave a very personal and vivid voice to what seems to be, so often, so very far away.

This is not a book about G-d, although it does have moments where it touches on the dynamic between religious and secular Israelis. What there is though, is a wonderful and very tender collection of narrative voices, both present and past, which unfold in a kind of dance. Dina’s internal dialogue with her long dead mother struck me as quite brilliant. The tortured experience of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is delicately explored by Kaminsky in this present/absent fashion. Dina’s own relationships with her son, her husband and most disturbingly, her unborn child, present themselves with stark reminders of how we ourselves behave in these different circumstances and the power of the baggage that each of us carries which has the potential to lead us to destroy these bonds.

The book’s title is another point of interest – The Waiting Room. The bulk of the story unfolds in a physical waiting room – Dina, the doctor’s, waiting room which later becomes these scene of a very different kind of waiting room. But the more intangible waiting room is the space that Dina’s mother inhabits; she is no longer alive, but she is clearly neither dead and buried. She occupies a kind of between space, she follows Dina around, talking to her, interjecting in her conversations, criticising her and often getting in the way. She too is in a metaphorical waiting room between life and death which perhaps has to do with the deep discussion that she and Dina need to have but can never quite master effectively. The layers of meaning in this title are fascinating when we think about the other characters in the book – the man who fixes shoes in the Shuk, some of the shoes on his shelf have been waiting there for 15 years and will probably keep waiting there as they are forgotten by their owners, but not by the shoe repairer. In addition, the shoe repairer himself is stuck in a kind of waiting room as he grapples with his own haunted memories of Auschwitz where he learned his trade and was saved. How is it ever possible for these people to graduate from their various waiting rooms and to move forward into the world? It was this that struck me as so disturbing.

What will stay with me from this novel is a sense of the intensity with which some people live, and the way that for others, the past is inescapable. Both of these ideas seemed to be dominant forces in this text.

Kaminsky is definitely a writer to watch and if you are looking for an interesting, yet disturbing read, then this book is for you!

  • as an aside. My mother didn’t LOVE this book in the way that I seem to have loved it. She said it was “huh” which I think translates to something like “yeah, I read it and it was enjoyable but nothing special’ and I’ve been trying to work out what she missed (or what I missed) and I think that the one thing I had that she didn’t have was Leah Kaminsky talking about this book, being interviewed about the process of writing this book and the challenges she faced and how she dealt with those challenges. I really believe that this experience made my reading experience a really intense and real one and so I thank Michael Misrachi and Sharon Berger who organised the Jewish Writers Festival and allowed me to prowl around and take it all in! Thank you all!!

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

download (1)Confession: Until I read this book, I had never read a Toni Morrison book before.  I’m not quite sure why. Sure, I know all about Beloved and I feel as though I know Morrison – I certainly felt as thought I had a intimate taste of her writing as I read this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I thought Morrison would feel like… if that makes sense.

When I think Morrison, I think Maya Angelou but somehow without the gravely tone of her voice and the echo of her depths. I realise that this is a very sensory response to a piece of writing but I don’t see that there is any other way to response to such a work. I agree with Kara Walker who says, in the NY Times review: “Toni Morrison has always written for the ear, with a loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”

I don’t think I can do a review of this book justice. Not sure it’s worth trying since The Guardian has done such a superb job! What I will say is that the premise of this book quite distubed me. I expected the colour issue and I expected a feminist angle and I wasn’t disappointed on either count. What I found confronting was the story itself – the way that the protagonist, Bride, physically regresses in response to the burden of a lie she told as a child. In her own mind, her body reverts back to her childhood self. It was this that disturbed me, perhaps because it was most unexpected.

I wasn’t bowled over by this book. I loved the majesty of Morrison’s prose – there’s no doubt that she has a symphony hidden in her pen, or her keyboard or quill. She is clearly a master of language and storytelling. I was captivated by the story and by Bride’s boyfriend, Booker – I found him fascinating. I think where I was left somewhat empty was in Bride herself. There was something in her voice that didn’t entirely resonate with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on… Perhaps it is just in comparison to the grandeur of the prose that I have been left with such a high expectations of perfection from this author.

As The Atlantic so succintly puts it: “Rather than craft big novels, Morrison has distilled her fictions with atomic elements.”

This novel was certainly worth the read and Morrison is truly one of the greats. Equally fascinating, are the various opinions of the different reviews which all provide such insight into this intriguing little book.

Pretty Girls, Karin Slaughter

downloadLast week I read a Lee Child book. I was really disappointed. It did nothing for me and I found myself losing concentration. It could have been me … it could’ve been the book. I can’t say for sure. I just know that it didn’t grab me.

So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a new Karin Slaughter at the Library and literally drowned in the gripping furor of this unbelievable book. Slaughter had me from the first page. I couldn’t get enough of this book, of the complex relationship between characters, the psychosis and then the varied and unexpected twists as the narrative progressed.

If you are after a thoroughly gripping thriller, then this is one that won’t disappoint!!

No Stars at the Circus, Mary Finn

9781406347333It is August, 1942 and Jonas Alber is ten years old. It is hard to write a review about a book that begins with such a beautiful narrative voice… There is something truly humbling about trying to compete with that voice. Jonas begins the book with his “Last Will and Testament” and goes on to explain why he is writing this Will as a ten year old:

“I am living in rue Cuvier now because Signor Corrado brought me to see the Professor yesterday. He fixed it up for me to come here and be safe. So far, I have been safe in this house for one day.”

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to readers that Jonas has been separated by his family who have been rounded up by the Nazis. Jonas’ journey into hiding has taken him through a circus, into the arms of some simply wonderful characters and finally to the safely of the Professor who we discover was Jonas’ mother’s music teacher when she was younger.

What struck me about this book was the wonder that was woven into such a terrifying period of our history. Jonas finds safety in such unusual places and the innocence with which he perceives his experiences is both refreshing and sad.

While this book didn’t touch me in the same way that Leon Leyson’s memoir did, I still think it’s an incredibly valuable young adult book about life during this period. If you’re a fan of good YA historical fiction, I highly recommend this book and I will certainly be on the lookout for more books by the stellar Mary Finn.

Alice Hoffman, Fortune’s Daughter

download (1)The problem with reading so voraciously and not reviewing so efficiently is that one forgets and that is exactly what has happened with this book which I read such a long time ago and then forgot about … And yes, I’ve forgotten the intricacies of this tale and the details of the action and much of the drama and to make up for it I’ve had to read the reviews of others – something that I try not to do. What I do remember is Hoffman’s beautiful prose, the soft language and the beauty of her intense and rich characters.

This is a novel about two women whose lives come together in the strangest of circumstances. It is a novel about how people deal with loss and tragedy and indeed, about how they recover.

I am an enormous Hoffman fan, as I have mentioned elsewhere, and I always jump at an opportunity to fall into her prose.

If you want a more thorough review of this book, I recommend the New York Times whose reviewer is clearly more organised than I am!

Saeed Fassaie, Rising From the Shadows

Rising Above The Shadows_cover_artworkI have a confession. I only borrowed this book from the library because it was endorsed by Dr Charlie Teo whose words grace the cover: “Every politician, every soldier, every doctor, every social worker, every refugeee, every school child … actually, every Australian needs to read this book.”

I’m not a politician, nor am I a solder or a doctor or social worker. I am also no longer a school child. I am, however, an Australian who has enormous respect for Dr Charlie Teo. So, I read this book. I read it over the course of a day and it is still unfolding in my mind in the aftermath of this reading.

There is no doubt in my mind that Saeed Fassaie is a great man. He is eloquent, educated, tenacious and ambitious. His story exposes him as brave and stubborn and righteous. He has staunch morals and isn’t afraid to stand up for his beliefs. In short, he is the type of person of whom we should all be in awe.

On the surface, Fassaie’s story is fascinating – his involvement in Iranian politics, his relationship with the youth around him and his time spent serving in the military fighting a war that he perceived as futile, led by a government who stood for nothing that had any value for Fassaie. However, what is far more striking are the philosophical insights that he provides throughout his memoir, insights that are explored through conversations he has with various people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or a woman he encounters in Hungary. It is these insights and observations, this questioning, which allow readers to truly appreciate the complexity and sensitivity of this man who is so torn by his country and his need to be true to himself.

I found this book valuable for so many different reasons. In some ways it reminded me of Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Teheran’ while in other ways the male narrative voice provided a totally alternate view of life in Iran. I found myself intrigued by Fassaie’s military service set against the background of his pacificism and his questioning of the value of religion, his desire to know and appreciate all that lay beyond the borders of Iran, and his willingness to embrace different social systems and then abandon the once he understood their flaws.

So much of Iran’s history has happened behind closed doors and both Nafisi and now Fassaie have provided valuable explorations of all that often remains hidden.

Where Fassaie’s book diverges is in his personal experience of mental illness and how that experience colours his emigration to Australia. For me this provided another dimension to this memoir, making it more personal and less political. I found myself developing a greater sense of empathy with Fassaie as a narrator and this allowed me to reconsider some of his earlier descriptions of experiences while he lived in Iran.

I commend Saeed Fassaie on his courage in writing this memoir. It can’t have been an easy task and it is well worth reading – both to appreciate the beauty of Iran and its people and to listen to a great man tell his story.

Mean Streak, Sandra Brown

downloadNothing beats a rainy night, a warm blanket and a good thriller! It’s a winning combination! Even more exciting since it’s been a while since I read an ‘I can’t put you down’ thriller. And that is exactly what this was. I read it cover to cover over 4 or 5 hours. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I could barely break to refill my cup of tea.

If you are after a fantastic escape then this is it!